Gospel of “try harder” vs the Gospel of the Kingdom


Last week we started looking at the Kingdom of God in the here and now, recognising of course that there is also a future component of the kingdom.


As we spoke, I asked why we do not see the behaviour changes in us as individuals and as a church that would show that we are citizens of the Kingdom of God.


The danger of that question is that we could get the impression that we have to try harder and today I want to dispel that thought.


Let me compare the message of John the Baptist to the message of Jesus to highlight this.


Matthew 3:1 ff

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” …5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins…[He told them]Bear fruit worthy of repentance. …11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”


His message was one of reformation. Reformation is in a physical sense, a making straight, restoring to its natural and normal condition something which in some way protrudes or has got out of line, as broken or misshapen limbs.[1]   Reformation is about doing stuff to achieve a goal. It is human centered.


Think of the great reformers of the Old Testament


Only eight of the 19 kings of Judah were described as good. Four of these good kings led Judah in religious reforms designed to restore the nation to a purer form of worship and to return the people to obeying the Mosaic Law. Asa was the first good king of Judah (v. 11) and the first reformer.[2]


Hezekiah removed the high places and idols from Judah and kept the commandments of the Lord (2 Kgs 18:1–8, 22).[3]

Josiah removed everything connected with the worship of false gods that his ancestors had set up in Judah and Jerusalem. The Temple was cleansed of all the paraphernalia that had been brought inside to be used in the worship of Baal … Asherah, and the astrological deities. He removed the Asherah pole from the temple.  He tore down the shelters of the male shrine prostitutes and those of the female idolaters who wove materials used in the worship of Asherah.[4]

Do you see key of reformation?  Removed, kept, cleansed, tore down: All the words are doing words. Doing things to make things better or more holy or more righteous.

In the same vein, John the Baptist tried to make people better. But the problem with reformation is that it produces the tense, “striving hard to be good” type of person, sincere but uncertain and occupied with “have I done enough?”

When we focus solely on repentance and on our own endeavours, that is the danger. When is enough enough? It makes it all about us and not about the role of God in the process.

Now let’s turn to the message of Jesus.

Whereas John tried to make people better, Jesus made them different.

The word for that making different is regeneration.





Regeneration is the transformation of a person’s spiritual condition from death to life through the work of the Holy Spirit.[5] The initiative in regeneration is ascribed to God; it is from above and of the Spirit. [6]


John 1: 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.


God gave the power… we did not manufacture the power. It is an unearned gift.


 John 3:3& 5 “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”


“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.


Do we manufacture our own birth?  It is something out of our control; So it is with our spiritual birth.


The Holy Spirit plants or begets new life by a direct action on the soul.[7]


James 1:18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.


Ephesians 2:5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,


The process by which Jesus makes us different produces the receptive, relaxed, humble but certain, concerned not about what they have done but what he has done, assured, living not on a question mark but with all question marks turned into exclamation points, regenerated and rejoicing.


It is not “have I done enough”, It is “God has done it all”.


It is not salvation by works.  We do not need to pay to get in the kingdom, we do not need to have it all together to get into the kingdom. We don’t need to meet any immigration thresholds.  All comes from Jesus.


Sola fide; Sola gratia; Solus Christus


By faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone


There is a major difference between these 2 approaches.


The least in the Kingdom of receptivity is greater than the greatest in the kingdom of reformation, the I’ll try harder type. There is a difference between 2 worlds in these 2 words – demand and offer.[8]


Even John the Baptist acknowledged that Jesus had the better way:


[John said] John 3:30 He must increase, but I must decrease.” 31 The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. . 34 He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.


Jesus confirms this:

[Jesus said] Matthew 11:11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.


The emphasis in the Kingdom is on what you are, not on what you do. For what you do comes out of what you are. Your characteristics come out of your character. The kingdom of God is concerned primarily with what you are. The kingdoms of this world are concerned with what you do.[9]


That is not to say that we do nothing once we are saved.  We don’t take out the deck chair and the tall glass with the umbrella in it and watch for the sunset.  There are things we need to do


Doing righteousness, not committing sin, loving one another, believing that Jesus is the Christ, and overcoming the world. In these matters, we are not altogether passive. We actively repent, believe in Christ, and walk in newness of life.[10]


But our citizenship of the Kingdom of God does not rest in trying harder, but in allowing the Holy Spirit to work within us and transform us


Romans 12:Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.


2 Corinthians 3:18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.


Our role is to be open to the Holy Spirit effecting change within us. Our role is to be available for those changes to take place.


Not striving to make ourselves acceptable, but allowing ourselves to be transformed. The old is gone, the new is come.


As we say in baptism, the old man of our sin is dead in the water and we are a new creation.


Allow the Holy Spirit to transform you into the behaviors and attitudes fitting for a citizen of the Kingdom of God. Be available and ready to change as the Holy Spirit leads.












[2] Constable, T. L.  1 Kings. In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 1, p. 519)

[3] Werse, N. R. Hezekiah, King of Judah. In The Lexham Bible Dictionary

[4] Constable, T. L. 2 Kings. In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 1, p. 582).

[5] MacGregor, K. R. Regeneration. In The Lexham Bible Dictionary.

[6] Gordon, M. R Regeneration. In New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 1005).

[7] ibid.

[8] The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person (E Stanley Jones) 80

[9] Jones 163

[10] Gordon, p. 1005).